Symphonies of Genius, Unveiling the Top 10 Classical Era Composers

ByQuyen Anne

Aug 16, 2023

The Classical era was dominated by many of the greatest composers in the history of music, including Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and Schubert

The term ‘Classical Music’ has two meanings: used to describe any music which is supposedly ‘heavy’ (as opposed to pop or jazz as in ‘I can’t stand classical music’) and also a certain period in the development of music, the Classical era. This can be summarised as music which is notable for its masterly economy of form and resources and for its lack of overt emotionalism. If Bach and Handel dominated the first half of the 17th century, Haydn and Mozart are their counterparts for the latter half and represent all the virtues of the Classical style.

the classical music period dates on timeline

About The Classical Era Of Music

The classical music period was an era in music history which roughly spanned from 1730 to 1820. This period of music came after baroque music and was just before the Romantic period.

periods of music timeline

A Brief History Of The Classical Period

This era of time is titled ‘classical’ as the art and literature of the time had a huge interest and admiration for the classic artistic and literary heritage of Greece and Rome.

This time in history was also often labelled the age of enlightenment. This was a philosophical movement where people quite literally became enlightened on ideas about god, reason, nature and humanity. This then led to a revolution in art, philosophy and of course, music.

It is easy to see this stylistic movement within music as there is a clear move away from the baroque tradition of music written simply for the court or churches. Although music was still written for these musical settings, we now saw a rise in public concerts. This showed that the general feeling was that music should be written for the enjoyment of the general public as well.

What Are The Features Of The Classical Music Period

1. Simplicity

Classical music had a bigger focus on simple melodies, simpler harmonies and much larger ensembles. This was very different to the elaborate and ornamented melodies of the baroque era. Melodies in the classical era often took their ideas from folk music and developed the composition of these by altering the tempo, dynamics and tonality. These ideas were then developed much further as music moved into the romantic era.

2. Clear Musical Forms

Similar to our point above, the musical forms used in classical music aimed to have order and structural clarity. The classical style was clear and musical compositions of the time reflected this with clear sections shown with traditional tonality, dynamics and other performance directions.

3. Increased Accessibility

As we saw above, music now became much more accessible to the public with public concerts being much more common place. With this emphasis on public performance, composers were able to write slightly more freely as the new emphasis was on entertainment and enjoyment. We saw opera becoming more commonplace and with the enlightenment and the move away from traditional authority figures (such as the monarchy), opera began focusing on subjects that the average would enjoy. For example, Mozarts The Marriage of Figaro is about two servants that outsmart the ruling count and countess in a story about love, betrayal and fidelity.

Instruments Of The Classical Music Period

During this time we saw the harpsichord being replaced with the piano. Piano music from then on slowly became much richer in tone. As the piano developed further it was able to play more sustained melodies and had much more dynamic contrast.

Orchestras during this time became slightly larger with clear sections of the orchestra being defined such as the string section and the woodwind section.

The woodwind section would generally consist of two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets and two bassoons, similar to what we see today. This would then sometimes be supplemented with other instruments such as the English horn (cor anglais), piccolo, contrabassoon etc.

The string section was eventually standardized within this era into what we know today, with the violin, viola, cello and double bass.

The percussion section would mostly just include the timpani, although in certain types of music you may see the bass drum, triangle, cymbals or tambourine being used.

The brass section was still not too developed, often just including the natural horn, natural trumpet, the sackbut (a precursor to the trombone) and the post horn.

sackbut instrument, early trombone
Sackbut– Early Trombone
natural horn
Natural Horn
natural trumpet
Natural Trumpet

Common Musical Forms

Instrumental music became much more popular in the classical era, although choral music was still widely popular. The most common instrumental music forms in the classical era music were the:

  • Sonata

  • Trio

  • String Quartets

  • Quintets

  • Symphony

  • Concerto – this was now mostly written for virtuosi musicians to play on top of an orchestra.

  • Serenades

  • Divertimentos

Sonata form became possibly the most important form in this period though as it was used to help build many compositions such as symphonies and string quartets.

Classical Period Composers

Throughout this time, Vienna was where most of the composers came from and there was a particular group of composers that were often referred to as the viennese school. These composers were Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Joseph Haydn, Franz Schubert and Ludwig Van Beethoven. There were of course many other famous classical music composers such as C.P.E Bach, Gluck, Salieri and Clementi but the viennese school of composers were considered the most influential.

Beethoven was right at the end of the classical era as some of his music is considered the beginning of the romantic era.

Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787)

Gluck’s father was a forester and, like Handel’s, actively discouraged his son from playing any musical instruments when it was obvious that he had such a talent. Gluck left home at 18 and for the next 25 years flitted all over Europe in pursuit of his musical career: first to Prague where he supported himself by playing at dances and singing in churches, then to Vienna, afterwards (in 1737) to Milan. There he studied with Sammartini, one of the first symphonic composers, and absorbed all there was to know about Italian opera. Four years later he had his first success with Artaserse and decided to move on to London. He met Handel, who liked him but couldn’t stand his music. Gluck kept a portrait of Handel in his bedroom for the rest of his life.

He left London to travel the length and breadth of Europe for the next 15 years as a composer and conductor, tossing off operas in the Italian style and becoming more and more dissatisfied with what he was doing. Eventually he married the daughter of a wealthy Viennese banker, which made him financially independent. Then, in 1760, famous and successful as he was, collaborating with two others, he wrote a ballet, Don Juan, based on Molière’s play, which broke with convention – it was more human, more truthful and aspired to far greater dramatic effect than anything currently on offer. In 1762 one of his collaborators, the extraordinary playwright, critic and lottery organiser Ranieri de’ Calzabigi, who was entirely in tune with Gluck’s ideas, came up with the libretto of Orfeo ed Euridice. It did for opera what Don Juan had done for ballet. Audiences had heard nothing like it before.

Neither had musicians. Gluck was a perfectionist with an acute ear and simply would not tolerate sloppy playing. His abrupt manner and dictatorial demands made him the Toscanini of his day, insisting that players repeat passages 20 or 30 times until he was satisfied with the result.

In 1773 he visited Paris with his wife and adopted daughter, a fine singer. There he composed Iphigénie en Aulide and also produced it, after long rehearsals in which he had to correct acting and vocal styles that had not altered since the days of Lully. It precipitated a furore among French musicians and commentators, rival composers and music lovers. Even Queen Marie Antoinette played a small part in the battle by coming to the defence of Gluck (before her marriage, he’d taught the Austrian princess singing and harpsichord). In the end, the powerful Italian clique headed by the composer Niccolò Piccinni was defeated and Gluck returned to Vienna triumphant, though greatly saddened by the premature death of his daughter.

Perhaps his own health persuaded him to remain in Vienna after 1779, for he had suffered several ‘apoplectic seizures’ – probably minor thromboses. Hailed throughout Europe as its leading musical master, Gluck survived for a further eight years until a final stroke killed him.

Recommended recording

‘Italian Arias’

Cecilia Bartoli; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin / Bernhard Forck (Decca)

Gramophone Award winner – Recital category (2022); Recording of the Month (Awards issue 2001)

Read the review

Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach (1714-1788)

CPE Bach was the second (surviving) son of Johann Sebastian Bach. After lessons with his father he studied law before turning to music. The flute-playing Frederick the Great of Prussia hired him as a keyboard player when he was crown prince and, on becoming king in 1740, appointed him as chamber musician to his court in Potsdam. Carl Philipp Emanuel stayed there for the next 28 years, awaiting the royal call to make music and composing a vast amount of varied music in the anterooms between times. He also wrote a remarkable book, Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments, which is one of the most explicit and informative testimonies we have on how music was played in the 18th century. After Berlin and Potsdam, CPE moved to Hamburg to succeed his godfather Telemann as director of music of the five main churches. Here he remained for the rest of his life.

Apart from his influential book, CPE Bach’s importance in musical history rests on his pioneering of the Sonata-Symphony. Instead of the musically disconnected separate movements (suites) fashionable hitherto, CPE thought about contrasting different moods and developing the thematic material in certain ways. In both his orchestral and keyboard writing you can hear these thematic contrasts heightening the drama in the music. A transitional composer – his earliest works appeared when his father was still alive – he led the way into the new Classical period and even (in some works) presaged the later Romantic school with works of clear personal emotional involvement. Carl Philipp Emanuel’s music is eminently approachable, full of quirky, angular subjects which swoop in unexpectedly, with virile, bustling allegros and pensive, yearning slow movements of surprising candidness, whirling passages for the soloists’ fingers in the concertos, and plenty of wit and exuberance.

Recommended recording

Württemberg Sonatas

Mahan Esfahani (Hyperion)

Gramophone Award winner – Baroque Instrumental category (2014); Editor’s Choice (February 2014)

Read the review

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

Haydn’s father was a wheelwright and the village sexton. Joseph was the second of his 12 children. His brother Michael, born five years later, also became a composer. Where did the music come from? Haydn’s father had taught himself to play the harp by ear but otherwise, like Handel, there was nothing in his ancestry to indicate a musical career. His first lessons were from a cousin, a choral director, and he was only eight when admitted as a chorister to St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna.

After leaving the choir when his voice broke, he was thrown back on his own resources, borrowing money to rent an attic where he could practise the harpsichord. He made a thorough study of CPE Bach’s keyboard works, read as much musical theory as he could absorb and had a few lessons from the then famous Nicolò Porpora, an Italian composer who was living in Vienna. His first compositions began to get noticed and he was engaged as music director and composer to the Austrian Count Maximilian von Morzin at his estate in Lukavec.

In 1760 Haydn married – one of the biggest mistakes of his life. He’d been in love with one of his pupils in Vienna. When she became a nun, he married her sister. She had no love of music, no appreciation of her husband’s greatness and even used his manuscripts as hair-curlers. He was separated from her for most of his life but still sent her money. It’s said that, though he corresponded with her, he never opened her letters.

The turning-point in his life came in 1761 when Prince Anton Esterházy, who’d heard one of Haydn’s symphonies at Lukavec, invited him to become second Kapellmeister at his estate in Eisenstadt. Though the Prince died the following year, he was succeeded by his brother Nicholas – the fanatical music-loving ‘Nicholas the Magnificent’ who entertained on a truly lavish scale and built one of the most splendid castles in Europe, comprising a 400-seat theatre.

Here Haydn remained until 1790 and it was here that he composed most of his 83 string quartets, 80 of his 104 symphonies, nearly all his operas as well as keyboard works – let alone a huge amount of music written for the Prince to play himself. Every week, Haydn and his orchestra had to present two operas and two concerts plus daily chamber music for the Prince. His salary was generous and Haydn was encouraged to compose as he wished. As he himself wrote: ‘I was cut off from the world, there was no one to confuse or torment me, and so I was forced to become original.’ The members of the orchestra loved him (hence his nickname ‘Papa Haydn’) and Haydn even got on well with the Prince – it must have seemed like a dream.

By 1781 Haydn was acknowledged throughout Europe as a genius, honoured by all. He made only brief annual visits to his beloved Vienna but on one of them he met Mozart for the first time. Mozart was 25, nearly a quarter of a century younger than Haydn. The two became close friends, for Mozart admired Haydn’s music (his first six Viennese string quartets are dedicated to him) while the ever-generous Haydn described Mozart as ‘the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name’ and set about promoting Mozart’s works rather than his own. The two learnt much from each other.

Prince Nicholas died in 1790 and was succeeded by his son Paul Anton, who was more interested in paintings than music. Still, an annuity of 1000 florins kept Haydn as the nominal Kapellmeister to the Esterházys, allowing him to live permanently in Vienna. The same year, the enterprising impresario Johann Peter Salomon invited Haydn to London for a series of concerts. The composer was feted wherever he went and returned to Vienna 18 months later with a small fortune.

Haydn returned to London for further triumphs in 1794 and later in the year returned to Eszterháza. Paul Anton had died, succeeded by his son (another Prince Nicholas) who planned to revive the Haydn orchestra. As Kapellmeister, Haydn now turned his attention to choral works. From this period come the six late Masses, The Creation and The Seasons.

In his mid-sixties, Haydn’s health began to fail and he resigned as Kapellmeister in 1802, though Prince Nicholas II increased his pension to 2300 florins and paid all his medical bills so that Haydn should suffer no financial burden. Haydn made his last public appearance in 1808 at a concert given in his honour conducted by Salieri.

In 1809 Vienna capitulated to Napoleon who ordered a guard of honour to be placed round Haydn’s house. When Haydn died, the music at his memorial service was the Requiem by his favourite composer, Mozart.

Recommended recording

Haydn 2032, Volume 4 – Il Distratto

Il Giardino Armonico / Giovanni Antonini (Alpha)

Gramophone Award winner – Orchestral category (2017)

Read the review

Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805)

Who knows Boccherini’s name today for any reason other than his celebrated Minuet, used in films and television possibly more than any other piece as a shorthand way of conveying 18th-century elegance and refinement? Many will remember it being used to marvellous effect in the 1955 Ealing comedy The Ladykillers. The Minuet (in A major) comes from a String Quintet in E, published about 1775. He also wrote a further 124 string quintets, 102 string quartets and an enormous pile of other chamber music. Boccherini was highly regarded in his day, so much so that he was said to be ‘the wife of Haydn’ (musically speaking, of course!). Much of what he wrote is very fine and ought to be better known (his elegant piano quintets, for example, his eight surviving guitar quintets – No 4 in D has an infectiously lively Fandango finale – and the once-popular Cello Sonata in A). He was a cello virtuoso; of his concertos for the instrument, there’s a fine one in G (G480 from 1770) but that most often heard is one in a souped-up arrangement by the 19th-century cellist Friedrich Grützmacher (Concerto in B flat, G482), a Romantic conflation of two different works.

Recommended recording

String Quintets

Europa Galante (Erato)

Gramophone Editor’s Choice (June 2001)

Antonio Salieri (1750-1825)

Salieri studied with Florian Gassmann and others in Vienna, and knew Gluck (who became his patron) and Metastasio. In 1774 he succeeded Gassmann as court composer and conductor of the Italian opera; from 1788 he was also court Kapellmeister. He made his reputation as a stage composer, writing operas for Vienna from 1768 and presenting several in Italy, 1778-80. Later he dominated Parisian opera with three works of 1784-87; Tarare (1787), his greatest success, established him as Gluck’s heir. In 1790 he gave up his duties at the Italian opera. As his style became old-fashioned his works lost favour; he composed relatively little after 1804 but remained a central and influential figure in Viennese musical life. His many pupils included Beethoven, Schubert and Liszt.

Recommended recording


Lenneke Ruiten, Teresa Iervolino, Florie Valiquette, Ashley Riches; Les Talens Lyriques, Chœur de Chambre de Namur / Christophe Rousset (Aparté)

Gramophone Award shortlist – Opera category (2021); Editor’s Choice (March 2021)

Read the review

Muzio Clementi (1752-1832)

Italian-born Clementi started his studies in Rome before being all but adopted by Sir Peter Beckford who brought him to live on his estate in Dorset. There he honed his craft both as a composer and as a considerable keyboard virtuoso. In 1774 he moved to London where he established his reputation as a conductor and impresario in addition to his compositional and keyboard skills.

Between 1780 and 1785 he toured extensively in Europe and in 1781 he took part in a widely publicised keyboard ‘duel’ with Mozart – a contest that was declared a tie. He took up teaching and in 1798 he established a music publishing firm in whose catalogue were works by Beethoven. He also founded a piano-making company.

Much of his output features the piano but he also wrote a handful of symphonies in a late-Classical style. His style did take into account the new demand for Romantic sensibility in music but he was essentially a Classical artist, though his keyboard dexterity was considerable. He wrote a couple of treatises on keyboard playing: Introduction to the Art of Playing on the Piano Forte (1801) and the comprehensive keyboard collection Gradus ad Parnassum (1817-26).

Recommended recording

Complete Piano Sonatas, Volume 5

Howard Shelley

Gramophone Editor’s Choice (July 2010)

Read the review

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

There has never been a child prodigy in musical history to rival Mozart. He could compose and play the piano and the violin by the time he was six. His father Leopold was a composer and violinist in the service of the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, hoping in due course to become Kapellmeister. Wolfgang and his sister Anna Maria (nicknamed Nannerl) were the only two of Leopold’s seven children to survive infancy. Both were musically talented and when, at the age of four, Wolfgang could not only memorise a piece in an hour but play it faultlessly, Leopold realised that he had a prodigy on his hands. There’s no doubt that part of Leopold’s motive was to make a great musician of his son and let the world know about his God-given gifts – but he exploited these gifts to the full.

Both children set off on their first tour with their father, with the idea of playing at various European courts, first to Munich and the Elector of Bavaria, then to Vienna, where Nannerl and Wolfgang played in front of the Empress Maria Theresia and the seven-year-old Marie Antoinette. Mozart’s first compositions were published in Paris; his first symphonies were written the following year. The family tour continued to London, where audiences flocked to hear the two prodigies, amazed at Wolfgang’s powers of improvisation. Johann Christian Bach befriended them; one of the brothers Grimm (of fairy-tale fame) heard Mozart improvise and wrote: ‘I cannot be sure that this child will not turn my head if I go on hearing him often; he makes me realise that it is difficult to guard against madness on seeing prodigies. I am no longer surprised that St Paul should have lost his head after a strange vision.’

In 1766 the Mozarts arrived back in Salzburg, where Wolfgang applied himself to the serious study of counterpoint under his father’s tutelage. The following year the family were in Vienna, where his first opera, La finta semplice, was begun; his next stage work, the Singspiel Bastien und Bastienne, was produced at the home of Dr Mesmer, the protagonist of the therapy to become known as mesmerism.

Wolfgang and his father spent nearly two years in Italy – the visit when, legend has it, he wrote out the entire score of Allegri’s Miserere from memory. Here, he benefited from his meetings with the distinguished Italian composer Padre Martini. This was followed by a period in Salzburg in which he composed his first important works, including the violin concertos and the popular Haffner Serenade.

Accompanied by his mother, Mozart journeyed to Paris. This tour, unlike previous ones, which were financed by expensive gifts from the various courts, had to make money en route. It was during this time that he first fell in love with Aloysia, one of the daughters of the music copyist Fridolin Weber. His mother’s death in Paris and Aloysia’s rebuttal of his affections persuaded him to return to Salzburg, where he spent the next two years composing in the service of the Archbishop. Idomeneo (1780), his first important opera, was among the commissions he received. Frustrated by the stultifying demands of his employer, Mozart resigned from the Archbishop’s service.

Mozart decided to make Vienna his home (it remained his base for the rest of his life), a move which marks the beginning of his golden years as a mature composer. His first lodgings were with the Weber family and it wasn’t long before he had fallen in love with Constanze, the flighty younger sister of his old love (who was now married).

After his wedding in August 1782, a string of fine works appeared (the Haffner and Linz symphonies, a set of six string quartets dedicated to Haydn – the two had become close friends – as well as The Marriage of Figaro, 1786). All through this period, the Mozarts’ finances were perilously poised, despite many commissions and concert appearances. No court appointment had materialised and, though stories of his poverty at this time are exaggerated, he felt poor enough to write begging letters to his friends. And yet – and in spite of this – between 1784 and 1786 one masterpiece followed another. How could a human being compose nine of the greatest piano concertos in such circumstances? In 1786, three of these concertos were written at the same time as he was working on The Marriage of Figaro.

At last, in November 1787, he secured an appointment as Kammermusicus in Vienna in succession to Gluck. But whereas Gluck’s stipend was 2000 gulden, Mozart’s was a paltry 800. However, this change in his fortunes must have softened the blow of his father’s death earlier in the year. It’s almost incidental to mention that this was the year that saw the appearance of Don Giovanni, his second operatic masterpiece.

The year 1788 was the annus mirabilis in which Mozart composed his final three symphonies (Nos 39-41), Eine kleine Nachtmusik, the String Quintet in G minor and the exquisite Clarinet Quintet. The following spring Mozart travelled to Berlin, where he played for King Friedrich Wilhelm II and was offered the post of Kapellmeister at a good salary, but Vienna drew him back. He returned to complete Così fan tutte, his third collaboration with the librettist da Ponte. Da Ponte had already established himself in London and the opportunity arose for Mozart to go there. Mozart declined.

The Clarinet Concerto and Piano Concerto No 27 in B flat, The Magic Flute, the old-fashioned Italian-­style opera La clemenza di Tito and the Requiem – any one would have been sufficient to make their composer immortal. But all by the same man? In one year (1791)? The achievement is breathtaking.

The circumstances of Mozart’s death are well known – the mysterious stranger visiting Mozart to ask for the composition of a Requiem Mass, Mozart thinking the visitor had come from another world and that the Requiem was for his own soul. Mozart did not live long enough to complete it, for his terrible death, from a number of bodily failures, occurred a few weeks before his 36th birthday.

Recommended recording

Complete Violin Concertos

Isabelle Faust; Il Giardino Armonico / Giovanni Antonini

Gramophone’s Recording of the Year Award (2017)

Read the review

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

‘There are and there will be thousands of princes,’ wrote Beethoven to Prince Lichnowsky. ‘There is only one Beethoven.’ People approach Beethoven with a feeling of awe and reverence. Whether you like his music or not, it is an appropriate response for his achievements make him one of the supreme creative geniuses of history, up there with Leonardo, Michelangelo and Shakespeare (in fact someone once said that ‘where Shakespeare ends, Beethoven begins’). In one short burst he dragged music from the Classicism of the 18th century into the Romantic era, which dominated musical thinking for 100 years. What he did was genuinely courageous: his single-minded vision, idealism, determination and personal bravery are indeed awe-inspiring.

Beethoven was convinced that the ‘van’ in his name indicated noble birth and he allowed the rumour to circulate that he was the love-child of Friedrich Wilhelm II (or even – and more improbably – Frederick the Great). In fact his family was of Dutch descent. His grandfather had been a choir director in Louvain.

Beethoven had a thoroughly miserable childhood thanks to his alcoholic brute of a father (a singer in the Electoral Chapel in Bonn). Fired by ambitions to turn his gifted son into a second Mozart, Johann van Beethoven would keep him slaving at the piano all night, raining blows on him when he made a mistake. Young Ludwig was an unprepossessing-looking child, he had no friends, he was clumsy and untidy in appearance and the only warmth he knew came from his mother. Johann and his fellow drinker Tobias Pfeiffer were his first teachers; various others contributed to his early musical study of the violin, organ, piano and horn. His first work to be published was Nine Variations for piano on a March of Dressler which he composed when he was 12. His first important lessons came from the court organist Christian Neefe who recognised and nurtured Beethoven’s talent. At 14, the Elector Maximilian made him deputy court organist.

While on a visit to Bonn, Beethoven’s mother died. His father’s alcoholism cost him his job, obliging Beethoven to earn enough money to keep the family (he had two younger brothers). This he did by playing the viola in a theatre orchestra and giving piano lessons to the wealthy widow of a court councillor. Among the influential admirers he met at this time was Count Ferdinand Waldstein, later immortalised by the dedication of one of Beethoven’s sonatas.

In 1792 he studied briefly and unprofitably with Haydn in Vienna (which became his home for the rest of his life) before lessons in counterpoint from Albrechtsberger and vocal composition with Salieri. Haydn, it must be said, though as intolerant of Beethoven’s crude manners as he was of his disregard for the normal rules of harmony, was moved to remark that Beethoven made the impression of  ‘a man who has several heads, several hearts and several souls’.

In 1795 Beethoven made his debut in Vienna and his reputation as a virtuoso pianist and composer spread rapidly. Though it remained a secret between his doctor and himself for many years, we know that Beethoven was aware of impending deafness as early as his 26th year – otosclerosis was certainly part of the cause (an abnormal growth of honeycomb bone in the inner ear) accompanied by tinnitus, but a contributory factor was syphilis, the symptoms of which show up in the life mask made in 1812 and in the photograph taken of his skull in 1863 when the body was exhumed.

In a document dated 1802 and not discovered till after his death, Beethoven wrote poignantly of his condition, aware that the most important sense to him, that of hearing, was going to be taken away. This is the so-called Heiligenstadt Testament, written in the village of Heiligenstadt near Vienna.

His predicament spurred him to a furious spell of creativity and, in the circumstances, it is quite remarkable that he was able to compose such music – of every shape and form, embracing tragedy and joy – without apparent reference to his physical state (‘coolness under the fire of creative fantasy’ was how Schubert summed up Beethoven’s genius). During this period he presented his Third Piano Concerto and the Kreutzer Sonata, his oratorio Christus am Oelberge, the WaldsteinAppassionata and Moonlight Sonatas as well as his Symphony No 3 (the Eroica).

Fidelio was given in 1805, followed by the Razumovsky string quartets, Symphonies Nos 4, 5 and 6, the Violin Concerto, the Triple Concerto and a number of piano sonatas. Beethoven was offered the well-paid position of Kapellmeister of Kassel by King Jerome Bonaparte of Westphalia but, despite his financial difficulties (his income from various patrons was uncertain), he decided to stay in Vienna.

The inexorable progress of Beethoven’s deafness made him increasingly irritable, over-sensitive, scornful and petulant, more inclined to retreat into himself and shun society. He exaggerated his poverty (he kept his shares and bonds locked up in a secret drawer) and assiduously studied the winning numbers in the Austrian national lottery in the hope of making a fortune. Beethoven was also irredeemably untidy – his handwriting was all but indecipherable – and many manuscripts bear the circle made by using them as a cover for his soup or chamber pot. But his belief in himself and what he was doing was intense and woe betide anyone who didn’t acknowledge that. Many close friends were banished for ever for trifling incidents; others believed in him and supported him unsparingly: Prince Lobkowitz, Countess Erdödy, for instance, and (especially) the Archduke Rudolph – all tolerated his foibles and stuck loyally by him. Beethoven knew that he was breaking new ground. ‘With whom need I be afraid of measuring my strength?’ he once boasted proudly. To prove it, one masterpiece followed another – the Fifth Piano Concerto (the Emperor), Symphonies Nos 7 and 8, the Les adieux Piano Sonata.

The years 1812 to 1817 saw a marked decline in the amount of music and in its adventurousness. This led to the third and final phase of his development as a composer beginning in 1818 – and with a vengeance! It saw the appearance of the mammoth Hammerklavier Piano Sonata and it heralded the beginning of arguably his greatest and most productive period, the one which brought the Ninth (Choral) Symphony, the Missa solemnis and the late string quartets. During this decade, deprived of a wife and family, Beethoven sought to find a surrogate son in the form of his nephew Karl, whose father died in 1815. He regarded Karl’s mother as unfit to bring up the boy and engaged in a series of sordid and bitter court quarrels in an attempt to become his guardian. He finally won the case in 1820 and for the next six years stifled him with avuncular affection in a pathetic attempt to gain his love and reform Karl’s dissolute ways. Karl, in return, piled up enormous debts, regarded his uncle with some contempt and finally attempted to commit suicide. At length, he joined the army and went on to enjoy a normal life.

Beethoven was totally deaf after 1818. Just as those who have never fought in a war can never properly conceive its true terrors, so we can never imagine what deafness can have been like for one of the greatest composers of history. His touching faith in every new ‘hearing remedy’ that came on the market bears witness to his undying hope for a cure. His only means of conversation with his fellow men was through conversation books – everything that anybody wanted to say to Beethoven was written down first (he would answer orally). The most heart-rending demonstration of his affliction is the famous occasion of the premiere of the Ninth Symphony in May 1824, which the composer insisted on conducting himself, though stone deaf. It’s said that as the Symphony ended, Beethoven was several bars adrift from the orchestra and chorus and continued to conduct even as a storm of enthusiastic applause broke out. The contralto soloist, Caroline Ungher, at length came over to him, and gently turned him round to face the audience. Only then did the audience realise that Beethoven had not heard anything that had been going on and, wrote Sir George Grove, ‘[it] acted like an electric shock on all present. A volcanic explosion of sympathy and admiration followed which was repeated again and again and again and seemed as if it would never end’. There must have been a few tears shed that night.

In 1826 Beethoven caught a cold while visiting his brother; the cold developed into pneumonia; jaundice and dropsy set in after that. His death on the afternoon of March 26 came in the middle of a violent thunderstorm, a coincidence which has appealed to the more romantically inclined biographers. In fact, there was an electrical storm over Vienna that day but the other legend, that of the dying Beethoven raising his fists to Heaven in a last defiant gesture, must be a fanciful invention considering his feeble physical state. His last words were reported to have been: ‘I shall hear in Heaven.’ For his funeral, schools closed, people stayed away from work and all Vienna mourned. Franz Schubert was one of the torch-bearers.

‘The first of Beethoven’s compositions are music,’ wrote the critic Eduard Hanslick. ‘In his last compositions Beethoven makes music.’  There is a direct parallel between the political climate of the time and Beethoven’s music. Just as the French Revolution overthrew established authority and spread a wave of rebellion throughout Europe, so Beethoven with equal defiance and decisiveness overthrew accepted musical form, traditional harmony and structure and the neat, well-ordered ways of the so-recent worlds of Haydn and Mozart. Beethoven’s credo was the entirely new one expressed in the writings of the philosophers of the Enlightenment such as Rousseau and Voltaire: the creative ego has the right to express itself in its own way without fear or hindrance. As a devout republican, Beethoven (and indeed his music) shouts from the rooftops, ‘I, too, am King!’

Recommended recording

Symphonies Nos 5 & 7

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Carlos Kleiber

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Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)

His father was the town trumpeter for Pesaro and played brass instruments in various theatres as well as doubling as a municipal inspector of slaughterhouses; his mother was a small-time opera singer. Rossini’s gifts showed themselves at an early age so that by the time he reached his teens he could not only play the piano, the viola and the horn but was much in demand as a boy soprano.

By the time he had left the Liceo Musicale in Bologna he had composed a large amount of music, including five string quartets. He wrote his first opera, Demetrio e Polibio, in 1808 and this led to his first commission – La cambiale di matrimonio, a one-act opera which in turn prompted further commissions. From here Rossini’s career snowballed rapidly. His first full-length opera, Tancredi, was an enormous success (the aria ‘Di tanti palpiti’ was the equivalent of one of today’s pop hits) and less than three months later he had an even greater triumph with his comic opera L’italiana in Algeri. By 21 he was famous throughout Italy.

Venice had been the stage for his early work. Rossini then moved on to Naples and temporarily to Rome, where he’d been asked to write an opera for the Teatro Argentina. Desperate for a story, he decided to use Beaumarchais’s play Le barbier de Séville. It was an audacious choice for any composer but Rossini composed the 600 pages of his The Barber of Seville in 13 days (according to Rossini – his biographer says 19). Though he borrowed from some of his previous work, it remains one of the most astonishing feats of sustained, instant musical creation. The premiere was a fiasco but the second performance was a triumph and Il barbiere di Siviglia has continued to delight audiences throughout the world on a regular basis ever since.

Based in Naples, Rossini began an affair with the prima donna Isabella Colbran and continued his triumphant progress with La Cenerentola (1817), Mosè in Egitto (1818), La gazza ladra (1817) and Zelmira (1822). In fact, between 1808 and 1829 he produced no fewer than 40 operas. Now married to Colbran, Rossini moved to Vienna, where he met Beethoven and composed  Semiramide (1823), his next big hit. Then on to London, where he was feted by public and royalty alike (George IV sang duets with him) and treated as the greatest living composer. In 1824 he headed for Paris, where he adapted his style to French tastes with Le comte Ory (1828), following it with his grand opera masterpiece, William Tell. That was in 1829.

Rossini was by now immensely wealthy and at the height of his creative powers. Then his life took a completely unexpected course. He simply stopped composing. Except for his Stabat mater and Petite Messe solennelle of 1863, he wrote nothing else of importance. No one has yet come up with a completely convincing explanation why he made this decision – lack of inspiration? Worn out? His neurasthenia? Inability to find good singers? Afraid of competition? It could be none or any of these reasons.

In 1832 Rossini met Olympe Pélissier, a celebrated Parisian beauty, who became his mistress. They left Paris for Bologna in 1836 and, when Isabella Colbran died in 1845, the two were married. From 1848 to 1855 they lived in Florence and then returned to Paris. Like many Italians, Rossini was extremely superstitious and was terrified of Friday 13th. He died on November 13, 1868 – a Friday. There were 6000 mourners in his funeral procession, four military bands and a chorus of 399 which sang the Prayer from his Mosè in Egitto. His estate, when he died, was valued at about one million pounds.

Recommended recording


Sols; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment & Opera Rara Chorus / Sir Mark Elder

Gramophone Awards shortlist – Opera Category (2019); Recording of the Month (Awards issue 2018)

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Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

When Schubert’s musical talent began to emerge, though it was encouraged, there were no higher ambitions than that he should grow up to be a respectful, hard-working teacher like his father, whose diligence and thrift had allowed him to buy the schoolhouse where the family lived. His early lessons were with his father and brother but Schubert was soon far beyond their modest accomplishments. By the age of 10, Schubert could play the piano, organ, violin and viola.

He became a member of the Imperial Court chapel choir in Vienna, where among his teachers was Salieri. ‘You can do everything,’ he announced to this timid, diffident little boy, ‘for you are a genius.’ Schubert began composing while at school. When his voice broke, he decided to leave and return to his father’s house to follow in his footsteps and become a teacher. (One added bonus of the profession was that it meant avoiding military service.) Schubert was singularly unsuited to the task – he could not keep discipline; all he wanted to do was write music. And write it he did. There has probably been no one in the history of music with such a prodigious facility as Schubert. In this period he composed five symphonies, four Masses, several string quartets, stage music, an opera and some of his most famous Lieder (in 1815 alone he composed no fewer than 140 songs).

Taking the plunge, he finally abandoned the teaching career and took his chances as a full-time composer. He befriended the poets Johann Mayrhofer and Franz von Schober, and it was through the latter that he met the great baritone Johann Vogel, who was to champion so many of Schubert’s songs (he gave the first performance of ‘Erlkönig’). His self-discipline allowed him to produce an enormous amount of music (he wrote as much in 20 years as Brahms wrote in 50). His evenings were given over to music at the homes of his friends, where Schubert presided as the life and soul of the party – the gatherings came to be known as ‘Schubertiads’. Unlike Beethoven, he felt uncomfortable in aristocratic circles, preferring the Bohemian, intellectual, art-loving circle of Vienna.

The meagre income Schubert earned was supplemented by teaching music to the daughters of Count Esterházy at his summer estate in Zelésk, Hungary. Unlike Haydn before him, there was no permanent post for him there; and unlike Beethoven, Schubert never found a rich (and permanent) patron.

By 1820 he had composed over 500 works embracing every branch of composition. Yet only two of them had ever been heard in public – the Mass in F (in 1814) and one single solitary song (in 1819). The music commissioned for a play and an opera were both critical flops and it wasn’t until 1821 that his first works (a volume of songs) were published.

Failure and lack of recognition now began to bite hard. Poverty and having to live on the charity of friends made him increasingly despondent. Added to this, he had to cope with the effects of venereal disease. Yet, in the midst of this, he wrote the Unfinished Symphony. The death of his idol Beethoven came as a terrible blow to him and his ambition from then on was to be buried next to him. And still, amid his awful personal predicament, some of the most divine music ever written continued to flow – the String Quintet, the last three great piano sonatas, the Mass in E flat and the song-cycle Schwanengesang.

On March 26, 1828, in the Musikverein of Vienna, there was given for the first time a programme entirely devoted to Schubert’s music. It was put on by his friends, of course, but though successful, was never even reviewed. Less than eight months later, Schubert died of typhoid, delirious, babbling of Beethoven. He was 31 and was buried as near to him as was practicable, with the epitaph ‘Here lie rich treasure and still fairer hopes’. Schubert left no estate at all, absolutely nothing – except his manuscripts.

It was only by chance and the diligence of a few musicians that some of it came to light – in 1838 Schumann happened to visit Schubert’s brother and came across the great Symphony in C (the Ninth) and urged its publication; the Unfinished Symphony was not heard until 1865, after the score was found in a chest; it was George Grove (of Grove’s Dictionary fame) and the young Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame) who unearthed in a publisher’s house in Vienna Schubert’s Symphonies Nos 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6, 60 songs and the music for Rosamunde. That was in 1867. Over a century later, in 1978, the sketches for a tenth symphony were unearthed in another Viennese archive.

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